Seven months on from COVID-19 being declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, most English speaking Caribbean destinations have managed to contain the virus. Most are now in various stages of reopening to international visitors implementing stringent health and safety measures to protect the health of visitors as well as the local populations. Critical to attracting visitors back to their destinations will be improving their tourism product along with their marketing efforts. As such, based on observing most during the lockdown period, here are ten recommendations for Caribbean destinations to improve their tourism product and marketing activity moving forward.
View from Welcome Stone in Grenada which overlooks the 450-acres Levera National Park. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.
1. Invest in digital assets
Top of the list of digital assets for Caribbean destinations to acquire is high-resolution photographs and videos shot in landscape mode. This ideally should be done by a local photographer and videographer who over a period of weeks, if not months captures more than sun, sand, and sea scenery. After all, while this might be the initial appeal, visitors return time and time to the Caribbean because of the people, food, culture, tourist attractions, and rich heritage. Thus, this is what Caribbean destinations need to showcase more of across their website and social media channels to keep audiences engaged.
Photography from years ago or even user-generated content is not enough, especially since there are copyright issues relating to how user-generated can be used across digital channels. So time for all Caribbean destinations to get serious and invest in their digital inventory.
2. Invest in email marketing
In times of crisis, a comprehensive communications strategy is important to inform and educate stakeholders, trade partners, media, and potential visitors about what is happening in the destination. So beyond having a robust website with lots of engaging content, the most important digital channel is not social media (Facebook, Instagram, etc.) but email marketing.
Plus Caribbean destinations do not own their social media pages no matter how much time and money they invest in them. As such, it is essential for Caribbean destination management organizations to leverage both their website and other digital channels to build up an email list. In this COVID-19 era, trade professionals along with consumers (especially those in the diaspora) are looking for up to date information. So Caribbean destinations need to step up and keep the conversation going through email, which has stronger ROI.
Masquerade dancers at Little Bay in Montserrat during St Patrick’s Week Festival. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.
3. Tell more authentic stories
Much of the social media posts during the lockdown were dreamy until we can travel again beach content. Now that we are emerging from lockdown and people are considering their vacation options, it is vital for each Caribbean destination to:
- Provide information on the new health and safety protocols
- Provide insight into the new normal for visitors as well as the local population
- Showcase more of what makes their destination unique with an emphasis on culture and heritage
- Highlight the outdoors, wellness, and sustainable tourist attractions that allow visitors to have a memorable and ideally transformative experience
- Highlight the economic importance of travel and tourism to the local economy
4. Develop travel niches beyond sun, sand, and sea appealing to new audiences
Since the beginning of modern tourism in the Caribbean, the product offering has been about sun, sand, and sea. The target audience has primarily been older white Americans, Canadians, and Europeans who spend most of their time in the Caribbean at their hotel of choice lounging and relaxing at the beach. Most of these hotels with luxurious American and European style furnishings and restaurants while inviting, do not make for an authentic Caribbean experience. What does, are the activities, cultural and heritage attractions, markets, restaurants, etc. beyond the walls of the hotels and resorts.
Thus, Caribbean destinations need to encourage the development of tours and travel products that will attract new audiences who are more willing to explore, mix with locals, and ultimately spend money beyond the hotels and resorts. One area to focus on is the development of cultural and heritage experiences, ultimately appealing to Black travelers. This includes the mostly Black Caribbean diaspora who should not be taken for granted; especially second and third-generation Caribbean Americans/Canadians/Europeans who are further removed and less loyal to the region when it comes to vacation. More effort should also be made to appeal to African Americans as according to a 2018 study by Mandala Research, the economic value of these travelers is well over US$63 billion. High on their list of interests are cultural and food tourism which is a recipe for economic growth in the Caribbean.
Seafood lunch at Dasheene Restaurant at Ladera Resort in Saint Lucia. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.
5. Stop hiring public relations/marketing agencies in key source markets that lack diversity
Key to developing and diversifying the Caribbean tourism product beyond sun, sand, and sea is to hire marketing and public relations firms in major source markets (the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom) with diverse staff, including Caribbean nationals or those of Caribbean heritage. Having this insight will lead to more innovative campaigns than currently being produced as a lot of the people assigned to manage the daily public relations activity for the Caribbean have limited knowledge and experience of the region. Thus they often fall back on tired sun, sand, and sea cliché campaigns.
Beyond having diverse public relations and marketing teams, Caribbean destinations need to begin working more closely with Black journalists and digital content creators. Travel stories from the Caribbean should not just be told primarily through the gaze of white journalists. We need more Black people connected to the region to be invited to experience what the Caribbean has to offer and ultimately tell its unique story. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it would help attract new audiences that are more likely to explore and ultimately spend more money in the local communities.
6. Encourage tour operators to develop virtual tours and experiences
Sadly, it will be years before the global economy and tourism sector fully recovers from COVID-19. Thus, Caribbean destinations, hotels, and tour operators all need to pivot, adjusting their marketing and product offerings with a focus on developing sustainable tourism. With tour operators, some should consider launching virtual tours and experiences. These will in no way replace in-person tours, but they can help generate income now, plus they can inspire future travel. Essential here is that the virtual tours and experiences are unique and of high quality and production.
Case in point, I recently attended a virtual tour titled Emancipation Stories of Mary Prince & The Friendly Societies put on by Titan Tours Bermuda. I was captivated while learning about the life story of Mary Prince, whose autobiography The History of Mary Prince was initially published in Britain circa 1831. Prince’s courage and determination to document her life as an enslaved Black woman who lived on different Caribbean islands (Bermuda, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and Antigua) and then in England with her master helped to create awareness and support for the abolitionist movement. Also, learning about the Friendly Societies solidified my desire to visit Bermuda and tour many of the historical and cultural sites referenced.
The History of Mary Prince autobiography. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.
7. Focus on developing local and regional tourism
Most of the 31.5 million stay-over tourists to the Caribbean region each year hail from the United States, Canada, and Europe. As a result, most Caribbean destinations have not bothered to implement marketing initiatives to encourage domestic and regional tourism. Now with COVID-19, international travel is in doubt. Consumer research from Destination Analysts suggests that concern for personal health as well as personal finances is making most Americans cautious about booking international vacations.
As America is the top source market for most Caribbean destinations, the road to recovery will be slow until consumer confidence increases significantly, which most likely won’t happen until there is a vaccine. Thus, Caribbean destinations need to tap into the local and regional markets for tourism. Domestic and regional tourism won’t make up for the drop off in international visitors. Still, it can help to stimulate the economy, and the investment now will pay long term dividends – especially with the push for more community based and sustainable tourism.
Linked to developing regional tourism is the need for Caribbean governments to reduce the current high levels of travel taxes and fees and for regional airlines to work more closely together to improve connectivity and intra-regional travel.
8. Encourage longer stays
Through technology, more and more people have jobs that allow them to become location independent. And whereas it uses to be just freelancers and solo entrepreneurs living the digital nomad lifestyle, due to the coronavirus pandemic and the need to socially distance, employees working for major corporations now have this opportunity. Not everyone will want to do this from their home, so there is an opportunity for Caribbean destinations to launch an extended stay visa programs to attract middle and upper-income Americans, Canadians, and Europeans who want to work remotely for six months to a year.
Barbados was first out the gate with their Barbados 12-month Welcome Stamp Visa and Bermuda has also announced their One (1) Year Residency Certificate Policy. Antigua & Barbuda has followed with their two-year program, the Antigua Digital Nomad Residence. While it might seem like a crowded field, other Caribbean destinations should consider offering similar programs, as they can appeal to their own frequent visitors and there will be differences in the cost of living and overall value proposition.
Traditional float with Antigua & Barbuda flag at Antigua Carnival. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.
9. Work towards reducing leakage of tourism revenue
According to the Caribbean Tourism Organization, US$37 billion was spent last year by stay-over tourists visiting the Caribbean region. This figure, while impressive, becomes less so when you realize that much of the tourism revenue doesn’t stay in the Caribbean region. There is significant leakage of tourism revenue to purchase equipment, food, and other products that the Caribbean region cannot provide but is needed to service the tourism industry. For example, Jamaica, the most popular English-speaking destination in the Caribbean leaks about 30% of its tourism revenue through imports.
Beyond the import leakage of tourism revenue, there is also significant export leakage. This is because the tourism product in the Caribbean is dominated by resorts and hotels which are primarily owned by multinational corporations and large foreign businesses. These overseas entities take most of the profits back to their country of origin. As a result, about 70 to 80% of the revenue generated by the Caribbean region from stay-over tourists, ends up as leakage, which doesn’t bode well for developing sustainable tourism. Thus it is time for Caribbean governments who are ultimately responsible for tourism to develop and support initiatives to reduce the leakage.
10. View tourism as a marketing tool to drive other economic investment
Right now, a dark cloud hangs over the Caribbean region and much of the world due to COVID-19. Furthermore, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, the pandemic has resulted in over US$1 trillion in losses and 100 million tourism jobs. This is quite dire for all impacted, but the tourism industry will eventually bounce back. However, as we’ve seen in the past, beyond global pandemics other events like natural disasters (hurricanes and earthquakes), global banking crises, political crises, wars, etc. will disrupt the development of tourism in the Caribbean. Thus, the Caribbean region needs to get serious about reducing its reliance on the tourism industry.
Caribbean destinations need to view tourism as a marketing tool to drive economic investment and development in emerging technology sectors like artificial intelligence, blockchain, computer programming, cybersecurity, and virtual reality/gaming. Also, more traditional sectors like renewable energy, healthcare manufacturing, business processing outsourcing (BPO), and even farming and agro-processing. Agriculture may not be sexy, but as the region is currently importing over US$5 billion in food each year, it needs to get serious about food production to increase food security.
Tourism cannot and should not be the end-all, especially since the current model is flawed, and most local populations are not benefitting fully. What good is it to generate US$37 billion if only 20% to 30% remains in the Caribbean? So something has to change to stop the leakage of revenue and ultimately shift the focus to developing businesses and employment opportunities beyond tourism. I’m under no illusion that this is an easy undertaking, but the region needs to get serious and start. Otherwise, we’ll just keep doing what we’ve been doing and expect different results which, as we know, is the true definition of insanity.